Suns look to duplicate NHL’s Canadiens’ success

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by Matt Paulson
Associated Press Writer

PHOENIX (AP)—Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry has two words for the multitudes who aren’t giving his Suns any chance in the Western Conference finals against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers:

“Pittsburgh Penguins.”

Last year’s Stanley Cup winner and the favorite this season was bounced in the second round of the NHL playoffs May 12 by the No. 8 seed Montreal Canadiens.

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NOTHING TO LOSE—Phoenix Suns head coach Alvin Gentry instructs his team during the first quarter of Game 1 of an NBA second-round playoff basketball series against the San Antonio Spurs May 3, in Phoenix.

The talent-rich Penguins were stopped by the play of a hot goalie, but for the Suns to send home the equally talented Lakers, they know they will need an outstanding performance from more than one player.

On Monday, however, Kobe Bryant scored 40 points, Lamar Odom added 19 points and 19 rebounds, and the Lakers opened the series with ruthless offensive efficiency in a 128-107 victory.

Pau Gasol had 21 points for the top-seeded Lakers, who won their seventh straight playoff game and snapped the Suns’ six-game streak with a phenomenal second half, highlighted by Bryant’s 21-point third quarter. He barely stepped on the Lakers’ practice court during the past week to rest his ailing knee, ankle, finger and back—all minor impediments to a major talent.

“I practice so much during the season,” Bryant said. “In the offseason, I work a lot. To take a week off, I’m not going to lose all the work I put in prior to that.”

The defending NBA champions beat the third-seeded Suns at their own uptempo game when necessary, fluidly running the court to set up baskets for Bryant in his sixth straight 30-point game. Bryant then rested for most of the fourth quarter in the 11th 40-point game of his playoff career.

“They played great, one of the best games I’ve seen them play in the playoffs this season,” Gentry said. “Kobe kind of controlled the whole game. I thought we could have withstood the game that he had…but when he’s making his jumper like that, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.”

Game 2 is Wednesday night at Staples Center.

Amare Stoudemire scored 23 points and Steve Nash had 13 points and 13 assists for the Suns, who hadn’t lost since April 24. Robin Lopez started at center and scored 14 points in his playoff debut, but Phoenix couldn’t keep up with the champ’s height and 58 percent shooting in the Suns’ first conference finals appearance since 2006.

To have a chance against the Lakers, Phoenix will have to rely on the depth that has carried it all season, look to win a few key matchups and enjoy the lack of pressure that comes with being a heavy underdog.

“What do we have to lose? Nobody wants us to win anyway,” Channing Frye said. “According to everybody, we’re playing on borrowed money anyway.”

Frye is part of the Suns’ “second five” that is averaging 34.9 points in the postseason, best among the four remaining teams and nearly 12 points more than the Lakers’ reserves (23.2).

Gentry said without the stellar supporting performance by his bench, there’s no way Phoenix would have won 54 games in the regular season, or the past six straight in the playoffs—a franchise record.

Frye, Jared Dudley, Goran Dragic, Leandro Barbosa and Louis Amundson have all averaged at least 12 minutes through the first two rounds, keeping Phoenix’s starters plenty fresh.

The Suns will also have to figure out a way to at least contain Kobe Bryant.

“You can’t stop a great player,” Gentry said. “You can limit what he does.”

Grant Hill, who has been praised for the job he did against Portland’s Andre Miller and San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili in the first two rounds, and Jason Richardson drew the defensive assignment most often, but the Suns will throw several other looks at Bryant as well.

“The most important thing is that I do think we have to keep him off the foul line,” Gentry said. “When he’s shooting 12, 14 foul shots, then I think he really gets you in trouble. Then you add 10, 12 field goals to that, all of a sudden you’re in the high 30s or approaching 40.”

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